April 6, 2006
When atheist Hu meets proudly religious Bush
By Benjamin Kang Lim
BEIJING (Reuters) - Days before a summit between presidents Hu Jintao and George W. Bush in Beijing last November, China jailed a Protestant minister for illegally printing Bibles, ignoring U.S. concerns.
This month, as Hu, head of the officially atheist Communist Party, prepares to meet the proudly religious U.S. president, China appears to be going to great pains to burnish Hu's image and soften its record on religious and human rights.
There is talk of China forging ties with the Vatican and a possible warming toward the exiled Tibetan god-king, the Dalai Lama. And, for the first time since 1949, China will host an international religious meeting -- the World Buddhist Forum -- this month.
It has also released early at least four political prisoners.
Such moves, however symbolic, may provide Hu with a list of concessions on religion with which to temper U.S. complaints during his tour, analysts said.
"Certainly, Hu can refer to it to deflect some criticism on the religious front, and clearly the U.S. has a president who cares deeply about religion," Joseph Fewsmith, a sinologist at Boston University, said of the Buddhist forum.
China has sought to control religion, but not outright stifle it in a society where an ideological vacuum has spawned official corruption and eroded ethics in the post-Mao Zedong era.
But in the face of rising unrest -- 87,000 public order disturbances last year -- China has no qualms about crushing any challenge to its rule, banning the Falun Gong spiritual movement as a cult in 1999 and jailing thousands of its adherents.
"Religions can enjoy greater space if they do not challenge the Communist Party," said French Sinologist Nicholas Bequelin. "China wants to be able to control where things are headed."
Analysts were divided over whether the hints of religious openings were a public relations gambit ahead of Hu's visit or a genuine signal of increasing tolerance for freedom of beliefs.
A Chinese political commentator who writes under the pseudonym Liang Kezhi defended Hu, saying he was able to take a tiny liberal step forward only after honing his Marxist credentials to avoid censure by conservatives who fear liberalisation would threaten the party's survival.
Hu, who took over the top job in the party in 2002, is still consolidating power.
"He cannot afford to offend various factions in the party," Liang said, referring to Hu's peers, the military, party elders and the children of the country's political elite.
"Whatever he does, he should not dig the party's grave."
In a sign of leniency, China allowed thousands of pilgrims to attend a prayer meeting in India in January alongside the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 after an abortive uprising.
Envoys of the Dalai Lama and China have held five rounds of talks since 2002 as part of a slow process of rapprochement.
On the human rights front, China let a Tibetan nun jailed for 15 years seek medical treatment in the United States last month.
And, in a surprise concession, a Beijing court agreed last month to a decision by prosecutors to drop charges of leaking state secrets and fraud against New York Times researcher Zhao Yan. But he remains in custody for unknown reasons.
This year, China has freed early two jailed journalists, a labor activist and a 72-year-old retired physics professor.
"Hu is neither a liberal nor a conservative, but a realist when dealing with crises and opportunities," Liang said.